It was incidental that a character named Miranda comes to the fore in “The Grizzlies,” but to Miranda de Pencier, it might’ve seemed like destiny when the longtime producer was beckoned to take on the director’s chair for the first time.
“I’ve never worked harder on anything or cried more or laughed more in my life making something and I’d like to direct again,” says de Pencier, who has dedicated herself to those starting out in the industry achieve their vision. “Right now, I’m focused on supporting a number of young and talented other directors to make some things that I’m really excited about, but I want to step into that chair again.”
de Pencier is unlikely to be confused with the introverted young woman (Emerald MacDonald) who learns to play lacrosse when the sport begins to become a point of pride for the community of Kugluktuk, home to an Inuit population that has long been marginalized and known mostly for having the highest suicide rate in North America, but you do see her flourish, working from a script by “Justified” creator Graham Yost and “Anne With an E” creator Moira Walley-Beckett that celebrates seizing opportunities when they open up. In the film, that comes in the form of Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer), a teacher brought in to take over history classes in the furthest reaches of Northwestern Canada and finds his students, who see no future when surrounded by the frustrated fates of their parents, might be more engaged with something more proactive. Taking the last $300 left in the PE budget, Sheppard reminds the teens that lacrosse only became the national sport of Canada after it was created by the First Nations, inspiring them to start something of their own.
While the logline for “The Grizzlies” may suggest it falls into the tropes of another inspirational sports movie, or worse, the arrival of a white savior, the film slyly uses these expectations to upend them when it’s Sheppard who gets more of an education than anyone about the hardships of indigenous life and the teens learn just enough to take control of their own destiny, something you suspect comes through so sincerely when it was actually happening behind the scenes of the film. Using the production as a way to broaden the horizons of those now living in Kugluktuk, “The Grizzlies” has beautifully extended its encouraging reach from the 2005 story it’s based on to today and with the film now making its way onto VOD and digital after its planned theatrical release had to be scrapped as a result of the coronavirus, the director shared how the making of it changed her perspective and her life as well as her hope that it will change others as well.
Did you have the directing bug for a while or was it this project?
It’s funny because I started out as an actress and I directed a little bit of theater in my youth, not professionally, but I really loved it. This was 20 or 30 years ago and there weren’t a lot of examples of other female directors around me, so I just didn’t know how to go about it or step into that role, so I thought why don’t I produce and maybe it can lead to directing. Then I think I forgot about the directing part because I really ended up loving producing and worked with so many amazing, talented people. [laughs] I loved developing material and supporting directors with their vision, although I would sit sometimes at festivals and think about it. It was really Graham Yost, who wrote the original screenplay for “The Grizzlies” and was supposed to direct, who turned to me one day and he said, “de Pencier, I just don’t think I can do it, at least not this year” — he was getting really busy on “Justified” — and so I said, “Okay, we’re going to need to go find somebody. Who’s that going to be?” And he said, “Well, what about you?” And I laughed. And he said, “Well, you were an actress. You’ve been working with the community. I see it in you.” So he saw it before I saw it. [laughs]
You mention the indigenous community – this sounds like it wasn’t just building a film, but involving them to the extent they can do productions on their own now. What was that like as an undertaking?
Working on this film completely changed my life. I had never been to an indigenous community before making this film, and I wasn’t really thinking about it as a film that had an indigenous component to it when I started out because I was interested in the material as an inspirational sports drama. I’d seen a news piece about kids who were overcoming their trauma through sport, and we happened to make the film over the 10 years when Canada started talking about reconciliation and decolonization when words like that weren’t being uttered 10 years ago and neither was the importance of perspective and having people be able to tell their own stories. So I got really lucky early on, partnering with two Inuit producers Stacey Aglok MacDonald and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, who really kept me from screwing up and made sure that all the drafts and really right through the editing process that every cut of the film they watched and gave comments. We screened it for other indigenous filmmakers who were really helpful. It was definitely a huge learning curve and a big journey and it became a real collaboration between indigenous and non-indigenous.
If you wanted to make a classic sports movie, one of the fascinating things about this is how that gives you a structure that can then feel slightly subversive in applying it to another culture, seeing people you don’t normally see in those roles. Was it difficult to find the balance of hitting certain notes?
One of the great things that happened is it took a long time to raise the money for this film. That was a constant frustration [at first] because it was convincing funders that it was worth financing a movie that starred a bunch of young indigenous kids who you haven’t seen on-screen before. The character of Russ was really important to them because that was the only role that could be seen as the draw for the funders, and then as the partnership evolved between my indigenous co-producers and us Hollywood producers, we learned so much more about the north and realized the initial screenplay was a little more from Russ’ perspective and from the Southern white perspective. Russ Shepard always maintained that the kids changed him more than he changed them, so the truth was it was really about their transformation that we wanted to tell, and the last thing we wanted to do was make a “white man saves the day movie.” The world certainly doesn’t need another one of those and that wasn’t really the truth of what happened.
The kids in Kugluktuk really were extraordinary and became the heroes of the movie, but because it took so long to develop and make, the development of the script and the relationships became smarter and better, and all of us who were working on it got more experienced together. One of the Inuit co-producers Stacey and I had just done this workshop to find a bunch of young actors, so we thought, “Let’s not waste that. Let’s make something,” so we made a short film because we were waiting to make the bigger film and we ended up making “Throatsong.” Then we couldn’t afford to bring crew from the South, but it was really our desire [anyway] to train as much local crew as we could, so we ended up spending two weeks training all this crew in the north, all of whom had never been on a film set before. We went to a hair salon and got someone who could do hair and we found an electrician to be the gaffer and we literally went to people who had skills but hadn’t translated those skills to a film set.
That film ended up winning the Canadian Screen Award and got shortlisted for the Academy Award that year, and it was a first-time director, the first-time lead actress and a first-time producer and first-time crew except for our DP and our sound guy, they were the only outsiders, so what ended up happening is by the time we ended up making “The Grizzlies,” all of us had more experience.
Were you prepared to shoot in the Arctic?
Oh man. (laughs) This movie has everything you shouldn’t do in your first movie — animals, first-time actors, weather, stunts and fights. It’s just a lot, and interestingly enough, the biggest challenges of shooting in the Arctic are financial, just shipping equipment up costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and [while] we trained as many local crew as we could, we did need experts in departments from the South, so [it was] bringing up that crew and housing them. Because we were shooting at the end of April into May, we had the opposite problem that most movies do, which is that we were chasing the dark because in the spring, you get 24 hours of light and no night, so the parts of the film where we wanted winter night in the Arctic, we ended up having to shoot right at the beginning and then the last half of the movie, it was 24 hours of daylight when we were shooting.
The film has a beautiful score. Did you have an idea for the music from the start?
Garth [Stevenson, the composer] is so incredible. I listened to a lot of composers in the edit bay and every time I would put someone I thought was extraordinarily talented up against the picture, if the music was too complicated or rhythmic, it was very hard to find a sound that didn’t compete with the film. We also wanted to put as much Inuit music in the film, and because there’s not a lot of Inuit music in the world, mostly because there’s not access and money to record it, it was a challenge to find music that was already out there. When I found Garth and his music, it was the perfect fit. He writes a lot of his music outside. He’s inspired by nature and I don’t know if that was just organically part of it, but he loved the film and I went to Massachusetts to meet with him at his studio and talked about the film at length.
He really did an amazing job with the score and then we fused some of his score with indigenous singers like Tanya Tagaq, and because the talent’s out there [but recording is difficult], I tasked the music supervisor with finding young Inuit rappers on YouTube, so she went online and she found a number of these kids that had recorded their own music in their little tiny towns up in the Arctic and we picked four of them, we sent them the scenes that we wanted them to write the raps for. They wrote all their own music and then we flew them to Toronto and the engineer for Drake and the Weeknd was our master-in-command. We just worked with those artists and recorded their music professionally. They were incredible.
Before you premiered in Toronto, you toured the Northern communities with the film. What was that experience like?
It was so emotional, and it was really important to our Inuit co-producers to make sure that community got to see the film [first]. For all of us making the film, we wanted young indigenous youth to see the film because it’s about them, and many indigenous communities in Canada just don’t have movie theaters, so the fact that we made this inspirational drama starring this Inuit youth and other young indigenous people wouldn’t be able to see the film just felt wrong. We raised a quarter of a million dollars and toured remote communities, most of them who didn’t have movie theaters and the response was extraordinary. The tides are turning and finally the world giving more platforms for voices that we haven’t heard enough of yet, so we’re all better for it now. We’ve got more women directing and there’s a lot of exciting indigenous talent and indigenous filmmakers that I’ve met through the process of making “The Grizzlies” who are developing projects that are coming down the pipe and they’re going to blow everyone away. It’s very exciting for all of us.
But at those screenings, what we experienced were young indigenous people who had never seen themselves represented on screen and certainly never represented as the heroes of the film, so it’s become many young people’s favorite film and it’s also given a lot of hope to a lot of youth that has been struggling in those communities. It’s been an incredibly humbling experience as a filmmaker to see that response. We were in one community where a young girl came up to one of our Inuit co-producers after the screening and she actually herself worked in suicide prevention. She said she had planned to kill herself on the anniversary of her mother’s death, but now having seen the film, she hopes to stay alive and spread the word and work with other youth in her community, so I can retire now. [laughs] In my mind, it’s become way more than a film. I realized as I got to know the community more and I realized how much I was telling a story that wasn’t my story, I needed to listen so much to everyone in the journey of making the film, from the young actors we worked with to crew, to the Inuit co-producers I worked with and as my co-producers say, it was like we were living a version of reconciliation through the making of this film.